Late last Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko agreed that sanctions on Russia imposed in response to its actions in eastern Ukraine should be tied to full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Vice President Biden welcomed the Ukrainian Parliament’s adoption of measures in accordance with the Minsk agreements. The two also discussed an upcoming multinational training program for Ukraine’s National Guard forces, which the United States will support.
On Thursday, the media reported that up to 60 U.S. nationals have been added to a list of foreigners subject to entry bans and asset freezes in Russia. In response to being listed, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) said he could not be more proud of being sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin, and that he will never stop his efforts to support democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law in Russia.
The day before EU leaders met to discuss the situation in Ukraine, President Barack Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two leaders affirmed their position that full and prompt implementation of the three Minsk agreements must occur and Russia’s commitments must be met before any sanctions will be eased. President Obama and Chancellor Merkel also agreed on the continued importance of providing economic support for Ukraine as it implements necessary reforms. On Thursday, EU leaders agreed that they will not lift economic sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreement is fully implemented. In a sign of continuing tensions between Russia and the West, Lithuanian authorities reported that eight Russian fighter jets had been intercepted over international waters in the Baltic Sea by a NATO patrol last week.
Last Friday, President Obama spoke with French President François Hollande about the ongoing P5+1 Talks with Iran. Friday’s media reports indicate there is disagreement between the United States and France reportedly over the U.S. proposal to phase the lifting of sanctions. P5+1 negotiators are scheduled to meet this week to continue negotiations with Iran.
After negotiating last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said they would wait until mid-April before voting on legislation that would allow Congress to weigh-in on a nuclear deal with Iran. President Obama and the White House put significant pressure last week on Democrats to hold on supporting the legislation as the Administration seeks to finalize a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Senators Corker and Menendez said the SFRC would mark-up the bill as soon as Congress returns from the Easter recess on Tuesday, 14 April.
Last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement in response to reports that the Assad regime used chlorine gas as part of an attack earlier this week in the Syrian town of Sarmin. The Secretary said U.S. officials were deeply disturbed by the as-yet-unverified reports and he called a quick investigation into the allegations. The State Department declined to spell out any specific consequences should the attack be verified.
Media reports emerged last week that the Pentagon has lost track of $500 million in military equipment, including small arms, ammunition, vehicles, and other supplies, that it donated to the country. U.S. officials confirmed that the supplies might have slipped into the hands of Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaida.
Speculation remains high that a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill will be introduced after the 27 March – 12 April Easter congressional recess. Last week, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) reiterated it remains opposed to the passage of TPA. The AFL-CIO takes the position that free trade agreements have led to job loss and wage stagnation in the United States and do not necessarily seek to improve labor-related issues abroad. There are indications on Capital Hill that uncontroversial trade proposals – such as customs authorization, reauthorization of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, and the renewal of the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) – may be included in an “omnibus” trade package, anchored by TPA, which Congress might consider in May.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) indicated this week that the Democratic Caucus leadership is supporting House Ways & Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin’s (D-Michigan) demands that the Obama Administration involve lawmakers in discussing the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before Democrats would consider supporting a TPA bill. Minority Leader Pelosi’s remarks came after the House Democratic Caucus started the first of a series of meetings to discuss the TPP negotiations with Administration officials and outside experts. The Caucus meeting last week included labor leaders and an economist, with Congressman Levin sharing topics discussed included currency, investor-state dispute settlement, labor rights, and rules of origin. House Democrats also received briefings from Administration officials on currency, labor and investments. In a TPP-focused blog published on Friday, Congressman Levin defined his investor-state dispute settlements reform proposal for free trade agreements. Last week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said it would increase Congress’ access to the TPP text.
After Administration officials briefed the House Democrats on currency, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) – who opposes TPP – reported the Administration remains opposed to including a currency disciplines in a TPP deal. While there is bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress for currency manipulation to be addressed in TPP, the Administration advocates instead that this issue be handled through international bodies (such as the G-7, G-20, or the International Monetary Fund) and through bilateral discussions
On the third anniversary of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement (KORUS), Acting Deputy USTR Wendy Cutler acknowledged last Monday that full implementation of the agreement remains a challenge, particularly the financial data transfer, rules of origin and automotive provisions. Critics of TPP and TPA continue to cite KORUS as a negative example for future trade deals.
U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman met last Friday in Brussels with European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. Both issued a joint statement on public services that affirms: “U.S. and EU trade agreements do not prevent governments, at any level, from providing or supporting services in areas such as water, education, health, and social services.” After meeting last Tuesday with President Obama, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Ireland supports the ongoing TTIP negotiations, adding that the next six months will be critical to those talks. Washington will host the ninth round of TTIP negotiations next month.
Last week, President Obama hosted Prince of Wales Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who were in the United States advocating for environmental protection.
Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:
- 24 March: Deadline for framework deal with Iran
- 24 March: President Obama to host Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
- 10-11 April: Summit of the Americas in Panama
- 17 April: President Obama to host Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
- 17-19 April: 2015 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the IMF in Washington
- 7-8 June: G-7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany
- 30 June: S. Export-Import Bank charter expires
- 15 September: 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) opens in New York City
- 24 September: Pope Francis to address Congress
- 28 September: General debate of the UNGA begins